What is Avian Botulism?
Botulism is a neuromuscular disease caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. There are several different types of botulism. Type C and type E are responsible for extensive waterfowl die-offs and some fish kills. Type E is more prevalent in the Great Lakes. Botulism in humans is usually caused by type A or B and results from consuming improperly home-canned foods.
In the Great Lakes, botulism spores (the resting stage of the bacteria) are abundant in anaerobic habitats, such as soils and aquatic sediments of many lakes. When the correct environmental factors are present, the spores germinate and begin vegetative growth of the toxin-producing bacterial cells.
Botulism has been responsible for over 80,000 bird deaths on the Great Lakes since 1999. One theory is that infected fish, partially paralyzed by the toxin, became easy prey for flocks of migrating waterbirds. See: Upwellings (PDF)
Scientists believe that outbreaks of type E botulism occur only when particular ecological factors happen simultaneously, such as warmer water temperatures, anoxic (oxygen deprived) conditions, and nutrient-rich substrate, or areas with large amounts of decaying plant growth. As average air and water temperatures have been rising on a global scale, warmer temperatures and anoxic conditions are occurring more frequently. Once these factors lead to the production of the toxin in food material eaten by fish, the toxin can be passed up the food chain as birds consume the infected fish.
Botulism has been identified as a problem for fish and birds in Lakes Ontario and Erie, and in Lake Michigan. For more information about avian botulism:
General Information About Botulism
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Type E Botulism Outbreaks: A Manual for Beach Managers and the Public (PDF)
Botulism in Michigan
- Environmental Health News: Surge in Great Lakes Bird Deaths Driven by Invaders (2014)
- Avian Botulism and Grand Traverse Bay (2014 news article by Mark Breederland)
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- Michigan DNR botulism website
- State of Michigan website on Emerging Disease Issues
- Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore
Contact: Mark Breederland